Have you ever been intimidated trying to read the Bible? You pick it up, and perhaps it seems like a series of unrelated books bound together and handed onto us as God’s written word. Perhaps you’ve made a resolution to read the Bible for New Year’s or Lent… and everything is going well until you hit Leviticus. There, you may have been overwhelmed by the number or scope of the laws Moses handed on to the people of God. (Why do they need to be told not to do certain things?)
I get it. There’s lots there. And while we’re used to reading books cover to cover, I’d suggest a different – bigger picture way – of looking at the story. This is the journey we begin today.
When I was in high school, one of my classmates was an evangelical protestant who had a great love for scripture – so much so that he was a “Bible Quizzing” champion. He had dedicated a great deal of time to memorizing the Bible – so much so that we could name a random phrase (Job 1:6!) – and he’d quote it back to us. I do my best to learn key passages, but I’m nowhere near his dedication to knowing Scripture. Yet the knowledge of scripture is not optional for us as Catholics – St. Jerome once said that Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ. Whether it’s at Mass or in the prayers we pray (like the Hail Mary) – Scripture plays a key part in what we believe. Unfortunately, for many of us, we can be guilty of assuming that we hear enough scripture to not bother studying it (we hear most of the Bible proclaimed to us in three years of Sundays)… or we don’t bother to look at it at all.
Assuming you are reading this because you want to move past that… where do you start? Well, one way is following Jeff Cavins’ Bible timeline – where he has outlined fourteen books which narrate the story of scripture: Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Joshua, Judges, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, Ezra, Nehemiah, 1 Maccabees, Luke, & the Acts of the Apostles. Each of the other 59 books find their place within the narrated story of these fourteen books. If you want to read the Bible this way (you can do it a chapter at a time & complete this sequence over a matter of months), you can download a handy reading guide here and a summary of the Biblical Covenants here.
Within those fourteen books, you’ll find six key moments where God engages into a relationship with humanity. These relationships are founded in a series of covenants made by God with humanity, building up to the New Covenant of Jesus. These covenants will be the subject of our study together over the next few months.
What is a covenant? Quite often, we use the word covenant interchangeably with the word contract. Dr. Hahn points out that the difference between the biblical understanding of “covenant” and our use of “contract” is like the difference between prostitution (as a contract) and marriage (as a covenant). Certainly, a man and a prostitute may engage in the same act as a man and his wife – but the difference in relationship is tremendous. Likewise, covenants are very different than contracts. While a contract involves a promise and an exchange of goods, a covenant involves an oath (swearing oneself) and an exchange of persons.
Biblical covenants have particular characteristics. First, every covenant has a mediator – a person with whom God makes the covenant, who represents a particular group of people (his family, tribe, etc). Second, every covenant promises certain blessings for those who keep the covenant. Third, there are conditions laid out for keeping the covenant – and curses that come with breaking these. Fourth, each covenant has a sign which is used to celebrate and remember the covenant. Finally, God’s family takes on a new (and bigger) form with each successive covenant.
The six covenants are (click the link to read as we study each covenant):
1) God’s covenant with Adam: God makes a covenant with Adam (mediator), promising a fruitful union and the blessing of offspring; the condition is that they not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The sign of this covenant is the sabbath day, celebrated by one holy couple.
2) God’s covenant with Noah: After rescuing his family on the ark, God makes a covenant with Noah, promising not to destroy the world by flood again. They will be blessed but they are not to drink the blood of animals, nor to shed any other human blood. God leaves as a sign a rainbow in the sky – and grows God’s chosen people from a couple (under Adam & Eve) to one holy family.
3) God’s covenant with Abraham: God reaches out to Abram, chieftain of a tribe promising him a great deal including land and descendents. God further explains this in a promise of nationhood (Genesis 15), a dynasty (Genesis 17), and a universal blessing (Genesis 22). The sign of this covenant is circumcision – and the chosen family grows into one holy tribe.
4) God’s covenant with Moses: After a side trip to Egypt by which God (through Joseph) saves His chosen tribe, Israel has grown to be numerous, and Pharaoh has enslaved them. God uses Moses as judge and liberator to free Israel from slavery, swearing to be their God and asking them to worship Him alone. The sign of this covenant is the Law (the Ten Commandments) – and the holy tribe has grown into a holy nation.
5) God’s covenant with David: David is chosen by God to lead Israel as her King – and God swears to David that one of his descendents will forever remain on the throne of Israel. The sign of this covenant is the throne and Temple which Solomon, David’s son, will build – and the nation has now become a holy Kingdom.
6) The New Covenant of Jesus: In this covenant, Jesus is both God and mediator (high priest) with God, the perfect husband, father, chieftain, judge/prophet, and King. He fulfills every promise made in the other covenants – and promising to us life eternal with God in Heaven. The conditions on this covenant include belief in Jesus, Baptism, and the we eat and drink Jesus’ Body & Blood – the Eucharist – which is also the sign of this covenant… His body broken and given to us. The holy Kingdom now becomes a universal (Catholic) Church.
This is the introduction to a seven-part Bible Study I facilitated for students in one of my high schools in the spring of 2015, helping map out scripture for them using the six covenants between God & humanity to help them understand Salvation history. This series is inspired in no small part by two of my instructors, Dr. Scott Hahn & Jeff Cavins, both of whom have helped me understand the Bible in a much different light. Dr. Hahn’s “A Father Who Keeps His Promises” is good follow-up reading to these short reflections.